India books, REVIEWS

Far stranger than fiction

John Zubrzycki, The Mysterious Mr Jacob

Cover of The Mysterious Mr Jacob by John Zubrzycki, published by Random HouseAsk the name of the biggest diamond in the world, and most people would probably say the Koh-i-Noor, the 109-carat rock that adorns the crown of the British Queen Consort. Fought over for centuries by kings and emperors in India before passing into the hands of the British, it is said to carry a curse that brings misfortune to any man who wears it.

But in 1884 the Koh-i-Noor was surpassed by another gem, the 184-carat Imperial Diamond, discovered by a mine officer in South Africa and smuggled to London, where it was offered for sale. If the Imperial, or Jacob Diamond as it is now known, is not as famous as the Koh-i-Noor, it bears all the hallmarks of being cursed. The stone ended up in the hands of the most fabulous of India’s princely rulers, only to be used as a paperweight before being forgotten in the toe of a rotten old slipper; the prince’s state of Hyderabad would last just 60 more years before being ignominiously forced to join the Republic of India, and its treasures dispersed. Now in the possession of the Indian government, the diamond languishes in a vault most of the time, and is only occasionally put on exhibition.

With its descent from prized treasure to dull obscurity, the diamond would bring ruin to a man whose name had, at the very peak of the Raj, spelt extravagant wealth and extraordinary reputation. Long forgotten, the story of the diamond, and of the man who sold it, Alexander Jacob, is the basis of a new book by John Zubrzycki. The Mysterious Mr Jacob is a page-turner every bit as engrossing as its subject.

There are a couple of ways to write about pre-1947 India. One is to go for the grand narrative dominated by towering figures – Partition, Gandhi, Nehru and Mountbatten; the Uprising and the Independence struggle; Younghusband and Curzon; and so on. There have been plenty of books of this ilk. Another method is to research a lesser known story and let it weave its own narrative, in the process shining a light on forgotten but equally interesting aspects of life in pre-Independence India. It is a technique that William Dalrymple has put to brilliant use, starting with White Mughals.

Zubrzycki’s first book, The Last Nizam, told the story of Mukarram Jah, the heir to the ruling house of Hyderabad, India’s largest princely state, who inherited the world’s greatest fortune in 1967, only to squander it while living the life of a recluse on a sheep station in outback Australia. In The Mysterious Mr Jacob, Zubrzycki returns to Hyderabad to tell another story of incalculable wealth and squanderous eccentricity. In doing so, this glittering curiosity shop of a book explores British India’s Machiavellian manipulation of the princely states, its inept intelligence apparatus, its colourful press, the little-documented life of its summer capital, Simla, and plenty of other intriguing slices of life at the high noon of Empire.

The story centres on Jacob, a Turkish Christian who arrived penniless in Bombay in 1865. His rise to riches was swift: by 1880 he had the most successful curio shop in Simla (now known as Shimla), supplying everything from Tibetan antiques to emeralds, rubies and sapphires to the top echelon of India’s colonial administration and their numerous hangers-on. But Jacob was more than just a trader. His early years in India are shrouded in mystery, but he worked for a number of princely rulers. With a shop that, Simla-style, had frontages on both the exclusive Mall and the ‘native bazaar’ far below, the jewellery dealer developed an intelligence network that covered the subcontinent and fuelled his business ventures. Viceroys took him into their confidence, enlisting his services to fathom the inner workings of princely states when the efforts of the Raj’s Residents fell short. At the height of the Great Game he was approached to act as emissary to the Amir of Afghanistan, but wisely declined the offer.

Jacob’s shop was a mandatory stop for the imperial elite during the summer season, and invitations to his mansion, Belvedere, were much sought-after highlights of the social calendar. Yet Jacob maintained an air of mystery: no one knew exactly what his main business was, or exactly where he came from. He never married, but was known for performing the kind of conjuring feats for which India is fabled. No wonder he became the model for the spy trainer Lurgan Sahib in Kipling’s Kim, or that he inspired other characters in popular fiction and film. The most notable of these was the novel Mr Isaacs: A Tale of Modern India, by Francis Marion Crawford, a swashbuckling adventure laden with magic, mesmerism, tiger hunting and the inevitable English damsel. If Mr Isaacs is forgotten today, it was a runaway bestseller in its time, and set the template for a popular perception of India that would persist through to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It also made Jacob an international celebrity.

All of this is told with the thorougness and eye for detail that marked The Last Nizam. Zubrzycki, a senior writer with The Australian and former foreign correspondent in Delhi, scoured archives in London, Shimla, Delhi and Calcutta while researching the book, and brings clarity and humour to a tale that at times defies credibility; it’s no surprise that earlier writers resorted to fiction when it came to portraying Jacob.

The centrepiece is Jacob’s attempt to sell the Imperial Diamond to Mahboob Ali Khan, the newly-crowned Nizam of Hyderabad, already possessed of the greatest collection of jewels in India, yet ever prepared to spend ‘”sums amounting to the revenue of entire districts… in order that a few handfuls of bright pebbles may find their way into the palace”’, as the British Resident at Hyderabad wrote. The story grows thick with intrigue as Jacob tries to hoodwink the opium-addicted sovereign, who never wore the same clothes twice and whose dinner guests were served from solid gold, into buying the Imperial for a sum far in excess of its actual value. The cross-currents of palace rivalries, British attempts to scuttle the deal, and the airy whims of an addled potentate set the scene for a court case that had India on edge in the winter of 1891. Yet despite the crystal-clear reporting and the unambiguous outcome, the mystery remains: why did Jacob, this masterful character, already wealthy yet with a pronounced ascetic streak, risk everything on a single deal, even if it promised rewards beyond his imagining?

This is the true skill of the book – that despite the exhaustive research, it retains the air of an unsolved mystery. As the author admits towards the end, he may have chronicled Jacob’s life, but many pieces of the puzzle are still missing – files that have suspiciously vanished from the archives, the exact location of Jacob’s shop, the loss in a random accident of the man’s only known portrait.

Through it all shines a love for the subcontinent that is instantly recognisable to anyone who shares it. There are moments of rapture when Zubrzycki sheds his reporter’s dispassion and describes the excitement of the chase: the search for Jacob’s shop, his discovery of the ruined remains of his house, the Dickensian workings of Calcutta’s National Library of India. The most telling of these is when he recounts an experience he had visiting India as a young man. Stuck in a remote town in West Bengal, Zubrzycki witnessed a street magician perform a trick similar to one Jacob was reputed to have performed at his soirees, lifting a boy with a sword that pierced his neck, yet without harming him. To this day, the writer has not come up with a credible explanation for what he witnessed, yet is certain that it was real. Anyone who has spent enough time in India, myself included, has at some point had a similar experience. Such is the stuff of The Mysterious Mr Jacob.

– Angus  McDonald

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About moonpeak

Moonpeak is an online and print magazine published in McLeodganj, Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh, India. It features articles and interviews about travel, photography and books, with a focus on South Asia and Tibet. The magazine is based at Moonpeak cafe, restaurant and gallery on Temple Road, McLeodganj.

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